Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States. That statistic is of particular concern to African-Americans.
“In general, the prevalence of heart disease has decreased over time because of better medical management of risk factors. However, the risk of heart disease is still disproportionately higher among African-Americans,” says vascular surgeon Lee Kirksey, MD.
Heart disease narrows or blocks blood vessels, making complications like heart attack and stroke more likely.
In America, 44 percent of black men and nearly 48 percent of black women have some form of heart disease, including heart disease and stroke.
Why such issues have affected the African-American community in such a lopsided way is not clearly understood, according to Dr. Kirksey. “The reason behind the increased prevalence of heart disease in African-Americans is multifactorial. Identifying the leading factor is somewhat controversial,” he says.
Doctors suspect that genetic, environmental and social factors are at play.
“Heart disease has a genetic component, which is probably activated by certain social or environmental risk factors, including stress, diet and exercise,” Dr. Kirksey explains.
“There is even a theory that an increased sensitivity to salt intake, originating centuries ago in African Americans, results in a high prevalence of hypertension, but that has not been fully proven.”
Social factors that can make healthy lifestyles a challenge for African-Americans, especially in urban areas, include the following:
No matter what the challenges, seeing a doctor to assess your heart disease risk factors is critical.
“As an African-American physician, I’d like to emphasize that identifying an existing heart condition early allows your physician to tailor a medical regimen and recommend lifestyle modifications to treat the specific cause,” says Dr. Kirksey. Delaying diagnosis and treatment until the later stages of heart disease will lead to worse outcomes, he notes.
Meanwhile, Dr. Kirksey recommends making five lifestyle changes that will reduce your risk factors for heart disease:
“Awareness of heart disease and the impact of healthy behaviors on heart disease is increasing in the African-American community,” says Dr. Kirksey. “We have to continue to raise public awareness, especially with childhood programs. This can definitely be impactful across generations.”
If parents teach children about the importance of healthy eating and regular exercise early on, they can become habits as children grow up, he says.